Tuesday, 15 March 2011

The race

The city is quiet. The sun, just up, bathes the mountain side warm orange. I pull the bike out of the car and pull on my borrowed cycling shoes. A large 4 wheel drive pulls up behind me. The man leaps out and lifts his racing bike off the back. "Good luck," he grunts at me in Afrikaans accented English as he cycles off.

I climb on the bike and wobble precariously down the street as I try to figure out how to lock the cycling shoes into the pedals - and then promptly over balance as I try to work out how to remove them at the traffic lights. "Guess the whole idea of the race is not to stop," I mutter, embarressed.

Wobbling through town I head towards the Civic centre. I join a stream of professional looking cyclists - all in the full kit, with expensive racing bikes. There will be 44000 bikes on the route today - am I the only idiot on a mountain bike?

As I turn the corner the starting area comes into view, the atmosphere electric. The dawn light is grey here, but the buzz of people, the gathering cyclists and the pounding upbeat music quicken my pulse. I find my starting "pen" - along with 2000 others. I fall into conversation with two men waiting with me in the toilet queue.

"So where have you come from?" I ask. They look at me.

"Don't you know us?" says one.

"We're famous," says the other.

"Sorry," I say, a little flustered. "I'm a Brit." They laugh.

"So are we," the South African accent they had previously used has vanished. "We're accountants from Pretoria."

The loudspeaker calls out group to move onto the starting pen. We all cycle on, everyone has fallen silent in anticipation.

"5, 4, 3, 2, 1 - go" shouts the speaker. And we all wobble off.

The route leads out onto the motorway. Everyone is taking it easy at present. There is a low murmur of conversation and gears, and rubber on the road. We pass the University - resplendently neo-classical - and follow the mountain foot south. It is 8am, and people are up and dressed, lining the sides of the road, and hanging over bridges. "Come on!", "You're doing great!". Some people have set up gas braai's and are cooking breakfast for family and friends. We hit the first hill - and the locals have concentrated themselves along it to shout encouragement. I cannot stop myself from grinning, waving and thanking strangers and I drop a gear and pant up the slope.

2 hours later and I am just over a third through. The route winds through the coastal towns and is now hugging the shoreline of the National Park. The sun beats down - down directly overhead. The riders are not talking now - just the whir of gears, the crash of the waves and the the cries of the birds.

Nearly 4 hours in. Over two thirds. I push past the refreshment station - hundreds of cups of coke, and a tent advertising massage. A couple of cyclists have had a puncture - they are pulled off the dirt to the side of the road. Three young children from the Township we have just past have rushed up to help him - one holding the bike, whilst the others look on avidly as the cyclist rapidly changes his inner tube. Up ahead four more young kids are cheering - they are holding out their hands for a "low five" - I reach out and we slap palms.

Four hours, 20 minutes. I have managed Chapmans Peak - the highest point, and the exhilarating run down to the beach resort of Hout Bay, but now I am bored. Every pedal move is an effort. But finally - 4h 50min - it is the end.

I phone a friend and we have beer. But there are certain parts it is definitely not reaching.

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